1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 23
Joseph Wambaugh, Fugitive Nights
When PI Breda Burrows accepts a bog-standard infidelity case, she considers it a typical weekday rent-payer. Almost simultaneously, a swarthy stranger attacks a security officer at the Palm Springs airport and flees into the desert. Neither realizes how they’ve set upon a collision course that will transform California’s famous über-rich playground forever. They just know that if embittered ex-cop Lynn Cutter doesn’t stop cracking wise, they’ll shoot him.
Like Dashiell Hammett, Joseph Wambaugh’s novels have a hard-bitten edge reflecting their author’s personal history, which for Wambaugh means fourteen years “on the job” for the LAPD. But Wambaugh has a Monty Python-ish sense of humor that Hammett discovered only later. Wambaugh’s characters laugh because it hurts too much to cry. And their infectiously bleak gallows humor carries onto readers, conveying his characters’ intense, inescapable suffering.
Burrows, Cutter, and their geeky tagalong, Nelson Hareem, an exuberant but green cop with sweeping aspirations, form a sort of crime-fighting family looking for a crime. Burrows wants respect as a woman PI. Cutter wants to live a sexy, glamorous life which his disability pension can’t possibly cover. Nelson thinks these two can mentor him into becoming some heroic supercop. They embody Blind Justice as scripted by PJ O’Rourke and Dave Barry.
But like Shakespeare, Wambaugh uses humor to emphasize society’s widespread tragedy. While Burrows’ Wacky Trinity tries to understand why a millionaire is making deposits in a sperm bank, a glowering Mexican stranger is stalking the outskirts of Palm Springs. They slowly discover The Fugitive is circling their client’s estate, and he bears a grudge they can’t quite explain. They only know he intends bloody vengeance, and he has the skills to kill.
Wambaugh has long used his exciting, smart novels to examine the gap between law and justice. He enlists us into his scrutiny here, as two narratives converge in a confrontation that will inevitably hurt somebody. Though Nelson is a cop himself, his extracurricular status, alongside Burrows and Cutter off the job, blurs the line between police and vigilante. The Fugitive’s payback mission proves founded on a basis in justice, but not law.
The inexact nature of justice, for Wambaugh, comes from not only from who delivers it, but from what we cannot know. His characters lack important pieces of information they need to make vital decisions, and often make disastrous choices. Wambaugh softens the blow with slapstick, but the theme remains the same: nobody can truly exercise justice, because nobody has enough knowledge. Truth exists, but we cannot comprehend it.
Not that we can’t pursue truth. In a genre overcrowded with derivative police procedurals, Wambaugh brings a level of scientific precision most authors miss. Besides a novelist, Wambaugh has also written copious nonfiction; his 1991 classic The Blooding was the first mass-market introduction to forensic DNA identification. Despite his fiction’s frenetic pacing, Wambaugh brings a sober, journalist’s eye to how police do their job.
Wambaugh peoples his novel with an ensemble of fully realized characters. Burrows, an ex-cop, divulges to readers the struggles of a modern police woman in harrowing detail: her long descriptions of harassment, discrimination, and disenfranchisement make Taliban law seem downright liberal. Lynn Cutter’s sarcastic asides seem like whiskey-soaked farce, but reveal an exceptionally precise knowledge of the powers that enforce subjection in Palm Springs.
But of all his ensemble, none evinces greater humanity than The Fugitive. Wambaugh reveals his story incrementally, slower than Chinese Water Torture, yet always keeping us ahead of the heroes. From a story perspective, this offers flashes of witty, bleak irony. But The Fugitive himself never joins the novel’s aggressively comic sequences. As Wambaugh reveals his secrets, The Fugitive became the first character in years to actually make me cry.
This novel debuted in 1992, and includes topical references: George HW Bush, Operation Desert Shield, Mayor Sonny Bono. Yet rereading it twenty years later, it never feels dated or gimmicky. Wambaugh’s surface ornaments disclose deeper truths permeating his story: Palm Springs’ innate, violent inequality. The way society prizes order over justice. How rich people want police and security, but won’t pay for them. These themes remain timeless.
If this weren’t genre fiction, literary critics would embrace Wambaugh as a paragon of layered narrative, subtle characterization, and unflinching themes. They’d examine it for transcendent truths until they drained it dry. They’d force students to read this remarkably rich story until, like with Shakespeare or Hemingway, they made generations hate what they should love. But they haven’t discovered Wambaugh yet, so he remains ours to love.